In the age of the Internet, Nikola Tesla has enjoyed a posthumous surge in popularity like no deceased scientist before him. Whether its speculating about rumored Tesla inventions, driving the brand of electric car with his name on it, or taking his side in the Nikola Tesla/Thomas Edison rivalry, science nerds just love to geek out about Tesla. After all, the man could (allegedly) master lightning and generate earthquakes, so what’s not to love?
Tesla was born in Austria on July 10, 1856, although he moved to the United States in his late 20s and spent most of his life there. A somewhat secretive man, many of Tesla’s inventions are only known through his descriptions of them, and most of his notes have been lost to time or confiscated by the US Government. In short, there’s as much mystery as substance to Tesla’s story, and that only serves to make him even more intriguing.
There are statues of Nikola Tesla on both the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls, which strikes many visitors as strange. They were erected in recognition of Tesla’s breakthroughs in electricity and his building of the world’s first hydro-electric power plant nearby, but they’re monuments to the great inspiration that Tesla received from the breathtaking natural wonder. Upon seeing the mighty Falls for the first time, Tesla noted that he wanted to put a giant wheel under them and use it to power the world.
Despite his brilliant mind and seemingly limitless innovation, Tesla died penniless and alone like so many other misunderstood geniuses. Tesla actually spent the majority of his life in financial difficulty, in part due to his humanist view of the world. He invented things to make the world a better place and to improve quality of life, and wasn’t all that interested in accruing wealth while he did so. Unfortunately, financial realities often limited Tesla’s experimentation, especially when compared to his contemporaries like Thomas Edison. When Tesla passed away, he was barely scraping by.
Many of Tesla’s inventions are widely known, even if they were never actually put into practice. Much of the work from later in his life, when he was working on things like “death beams,” is held by the US government and still highly classified. Tesla died in America during World War II, which allowed the government to seize his property despite the fact he was an American citizen. Speculation is rampant as to what the US might be doing with some of Tesla’s materials, and death beams are the most frequent topic of discussion for obvious reasons.
Several of Tesla’s inventions were never put into practice, which means the world needs to take him at his word as to their applications. Such is the case with his infamous “earthquake machine,” which he claimed would use a system of pistons, springs, and a central rod to send vibrations through objects and literally shake them apart. With a large enough version, this supposed invention could feasibly cause real earthquakes, and seems like something Lex Luthor might create. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on one’s point of view, the Mythbusters tried to make a working version and found it to be highly infeasible.